What Will It Take to Trust M. Night Shyamalan?
A man enters a dark room and faces a suspicious audience. Within these four walls, he explains, he’s going to tell captive strangers a tale with life-or-death stakes. But first, he needs something crucial from them: their trust.
Gaining trust isn’t easy for Leonard (Dave Bautista), a heavily tattooed muscleman wielding a pitchfork fused to a scythe in “Knock at the Cabin.” It’s even harder for the film’s director, M. Night Shyamalan, a yarn-spinner who’s become more associated with the twist than Chubby Checker.
“I don’t look at it as a kind of fancy dance move,” Shyamalan said of his trickster reputation in a 2021 NPR interview. “Now I’m going to do the moonwalk, everybody! Here we go!” Shyamalan insists he’s not after gotchas. He’s a spiritualist chasing moments of epiphany, that exhalation when the reveal of one piece of information makes the world make sense.
Early on in “Knock at the Cabin,” Leonard and his three fellow kidnappers tie up a family — the parents Eric and Andrew (Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge) and their young daughter, Wen (Kristen Cui) — and attempt to persuade their prisoners that one of them must die or humanity will suffer fires, floods and plagues. The film, an adaptation of Paul Tremblay’s novel “The Cabin at the End of the World,” is, quite literally, announcing a Revelation. The hostages, and the audience, must make a choice. Will they believe Leonard or not? One of the two outcomes laid out at the beginning will turn out to be true. Regardless, Shyamalan’s name in the credits means some people will still call the ending a twist.
It wasn’t always this way. As a boy growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs, Shyamalan spent his weekends shooting straightforward 8 mm remakes of Steven Spielberg movies. He wore the Indiana Jones fedora; his German shepherd played the giant boulder. His parents assumed he’d become a doctor. The ur-Shyamalan surprise came when he applied only to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
Shyamalan couldn’t parrot Spielberg forever. He needed to find his own voice. In an interview on the ReelBlend podcast, he said that when his high school crush leaned over during a sold-out showing of “Fatal Attraction” to whisper, “You need to make movies like that,” he figured he’d give thrillers a stab. Yet, his first feature — “Praying With Anger” (1992), a culture-clash drama about an American college kid studying abroad in India, which Shyamalan, then a 22-year-old student, financed with borrowed money — was dismissed by James Berardinelli, one of the few critics who bothered to review it: “It’s always apparent what’s around the next corner, and the one after that as well.”
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“The Sixth Sense” freed Shyamalan from his creative rut — and mired him in a new one. On a rewatch, you can appreciate how he lays out evidence for the film’s “I see dead people” twist from the start. It’s an example of anagnorisis, the recognition of a character’s true nature, a literary device reaching back to Oedipus and beyond. (Aristotle proclaimed it storytelling’s most satisfying reveal.) Shyamalan didn’t cheat his a stitch. Yet, a sense of distrust shadowed his next films. Viewers went into his movies with their dukes up, vowing to solve his movie before the third act as though it were a math problem on the S.A.T. The discovery that the aliens in “Signs” were allergic to water was deemed a lame twist. It was simply a plot point.
In response, Shyamalan stripped away the supernatural from “The Village.” In an interview from Michael Bamberger’s book “The Man Who Heard Voices: Or, How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale,” the filmmaker said that he’d told the DreamWorks executive Nina Jacobson, “Now people don’t know what they’re going to get when they come see my movies.”
“I’m saying, ‘You can’t trust me at all — you don’t know where I’m going.’”
His films were still successful at the box office, and by and large would continue to be, but his relationship with audiences got worse. Shyamalan grasped at goofier reveals (“Maybe people are setting off the plants?” Mark Wahlberg’s character guesses halfway through “The Happening”) and produced a hoax documentary that claimed he’d once died for 30 minutes. Around this time, he stepped away from directing an adaptation of Yann Martel’s novel “Life of Pi,” because he felt too protective of a story about a boy from his own birthplace of Pondicherry, India, to subject the tale to the scrutiny of being an M. Night Shyamalan picture. (The film would go on the win its director, Ang Lee, an Academy Award in 2013.)
If Shyamalan was writing his own story, he’d note two ironies. The first is that Shyamalan himself tends to be too earnest. Rather than give pat answers to the press — the cast was great, the studio was great, everything is great — he reveals his inner mechanics like a reality show contestant who comfortably brags that they aren’t here to make friends.
The second is that he’d made “The Sixth Sense” to break into Hollywood as a daring, original filmmaker — yet he’d been hemmed in by the pressure of a Newsweek cover that anointed him “The Next Spielberg,” as though he was still that child back home aping his idol. Shyamalan wanted to be the first Shyamalan. He rejected an offer to pen the script for a fourth Indiana Jones film, but somehow believed that “Lady in the Water” (2006), an overcomplicated and savagely panned bit of indulgence, would be his “E.T.” Worse, he approved Bamberger’s previously mentioned book in which the author likened him to Bob Dylan, Michael Jordan and Moses, with an extra dash of sex appeal. (“Night’s shirt was half open — Tom Jones in his prime.”)
The disaster that was “Lady in the Water” kicked off a four-film slump in which Shyamalan’s budgets were pricier than ever, peaking at $150 million for “The Last Airbender” (2010), yet even added together, their total Rotten Tomatoes score is still rotten.
Shyamalan had hoped that splashy blockbusters would prove he deserved creative freedom. He’d put his faith in a false narrative of Spielbergian success. And he’d failed.
The master manipulator was scared by his own choices.
As for what to do next? The answer was obvious — if he went back to the beginning. Shyamalan borrowed money against his house to make the $5 million found-footage horror flick “The Visit” (2015). Every Hollywood studio passed on distributing it, so he flew home to Philadelphia and polished his edit until Universal said yes. “The Visit” grossed $98 million worldwide, and the director used a cut of his windfall to fund the next film, “Split,” which grossed $278 million, and the next, “Glass,” $247 million; each was shot on his own dime with complete creative independence and all but one of them shot in, essentially, his own backyard. The exception is “Old” (2021), which, because of the pandemic, was filmed at a locked-down resort in the Dominican Republic. He paid for that out of pocket, too.
The truth is, today’s shaky cinematic landscape can barely support the current Spielberg, let alone the next. Instead, Shyamalan is blueprinting a new paradigm. He’s the rare brand-name filmmaker who prefers to be a low-budget outsider, the most famous B-movie director in the world leading the charge to thrill audiences through cheap pictures with clever hooks built right into the title. He’s no longer hiding his best ideas until the end. In “Old,” Shyamalan takes a blunt premise — mysterious beach makes people age! — and doubles down on the idea past the point of good taste and onward into giddy, guilty pleasure.
Consider “Knock at the Cabin” a trust exercise. Bautista’s character threatens the apocalypse if the family in the cabin refuses to believe his visions — and Shyamalan has gathered us in the theater to see if we have faith that he simply wants to entertain. In a movie willing to shed blood and tears to prove that point, Shyamalan’s sincerity packs the biggest wallop.